Punta Gorda police chief placed on leave after citizens academy shooting death

Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis

PUNTA GORDA Fla. (WFLA) – The Punta Gorda city manager is speaking out after charges were filed in the accidental shooting death of a beloved librarian.

It was a tragedy that rocked the community and now has rocked the police department.

Back in August, Officer Lee Coel was taking part in an exercise during a training academy when he accidentally shot and killed 73-year-old Mary Knowlton.

After a lengthy investigation, the State Attorney’s office charged Coel with manslaughter and charged Police Chief Tom Lewis with culpable negligence.

On Wednesday, the State Attorney’s Office charged with Coel with manslaughter and charge Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis with culpable negligence.

“Things like this are never easy,” said City Manager Howard Kunik.

At a Thursday morning press conference Kunik announced next week Coel will have a pre-disciplinary hearing to determine his future employment status. Officer Coel will have an opportunity to appeal the city’s decision.

And Police Chief Tom Lewis was placed on paid administrative leave.

“Tom Lewis is a fine man. I know he is committed to excellence in his profession and has the best interests of the community at heart, if you believe otherwise you just don’t know him,” said Kunik.

“It is always a difficult decision to deal with an employee’s employment status and I’ve known Tom personally over the years so are you saying is this difficult? I feel it had to be done,” Kunik added.

Local resident CJ Metcalfe doesn’t believe Officer Coel should be punished harshly for this accident.

“He is an officer, enforcer of the law, and I don’t see him intentionally doing something like that. It was an accident,” said Metcalfe.

And she doesn’t want to see the chief fired, either.

“It doesn’t solve anything. We need our chief, he is a community person, he’s like a brother to the community,” said Metcalfe.

But others believe Chief Lewis deserves some of the blame for this terrible accident.

“I know he’s a good guy but the buck stops at the top…I believe he has to step down, I believe it’s time for a new chief to take over and maybe change some things,” said local resident Marty Blaustein.

After the city manager receives the investigative files from the State Attorney’s Office and FDLE, then he’ll decide what disciplinary action to take with the police chief.

Captain Jason Ciaschini has been named acting chief in the interim.

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